Brains Need Art
Like Art Needs Brains

Fire up your synapses! NeuroArts is now officially a movement.

| 18 Jul 2024 | 01:51

by Michele Willens

When I first reviewed Your Brain On Art, by Ivy Ross and Susan Magsamen, it was a rather new idea: making the connection between learning or appreciating a form of art and staying healthier and smarter as a result. The book has become a true success, going into an eleventh printing, and the starting point for the study of what is a relatively new field called NeuroArts or NeuroAesthetics.

A three-day BrainMind conference in New York recently featured the co-authors and panels of leaders of arts companies, university neuroscientists, and more. Opera star Renee Fleming—beloved for her star turns Massenet’s Manon and Dvorak’s Rusalka, among many other roles— participated and is promoting her own new book, called Music Mind.

The beat goes on. John Lithgow recently hosted a pilot for PBS called Art Happens Here, in which the award-winning stage and screen actor visited several art classes in Los Angeles. That too, is getting bigger: Lithgow will be part of The Kennedy Center’s Arts Education Conference, which focuses on sharing promising practices prioritizing arts education. The conference will be held June 24-26. And a new effort called Making the Arts Integral will be led by Daniel H. Weiss, President Emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he served as chief executive officer from 2015 to 2023.

Happily, local evidence is all around us. A New York-based organization called The Edge is all about getting kids—especially those of lesser means—into arts and sports activities. “We serve over 25,000 students in 136 schools with after-school, summer camp, and community school programming,” says Rachael Gazdick, its director. “These programs are designed to cultivate the gifts and talents of all our students, creating learning experiences in after-school spaces and connecting them with industry leaders to elevate their work. Our podcast, book publishing, music industry, animation, and dance programs all provide pathways to professional engagement in their respective fields.”

The key point here is that what starts as a lark may turn into a spark: one that lasts and matters.

I was co-founder of City Lights Youth Theatre, which had a NYC run of 19 years. This was a program for kids who were interested in performing but could not afford seeing shows or taking classes. Well, last summer I saw a national traveling version of To Kill A Mockingbird and noticed that one of the actors (understudying the pivotal role of the unfairly accused black man) had been in City Lights all those years ago. He hugged me after the performance and said I had taken him to his first Broadway show. That lark has lasted.

This movement is nationwide. In California, there was celebration this month, when it was announced that the legislative budget will restore approximately 75% of state funding for the arts that had been cut earlier.

The turnaround followed an aggressive campaign from arts advocates, employers and unions, who sent more than 9,000 letters to the Legislature, held over 30 meetings, and organized a press conference outside the Capitol.

This comes as great news to the authors of Your Brain on Art. Ivy Ross, a former New Yorker, has a top job at Google, and Susan Magsamen heads up the International Arts and Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins.

In fact, it is great news for those of all ages. Alzheimer experts like Dale Bredesen (a new documentary about his important work is called Memories for Life: Reversing Alzheimers) make it very clear that singing, dancing, painting, or just supporting others who do, can slow if not prevent the frightening memory loss we all fear.

As former Talking Heads leader David Byrne wrote in support of Your Brain On Art, “Its pages provide proof for what so many of us have always known: that art is transformative beyond measure.” Amen.

History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but we learn from history.”